Cohabitation Now More Common among Dating U.S. Couples that Become Parents

For the first time ever, shotgun weddings – the types of weddings that result from an unplanned, out of wedlock pregnancy, are now less common than cohabitation, new information now says. There are many reasons behind the trend, including economy and a loosening of social stigmas, researchers say. But no matter what they are, it would seem that cohabitation is here to stay, and it’s redefining the family unit in America.

expectant couple

Back in the 1990’s, about 25 percent of all couples that became pregnant while dating married. According to Daniel Litcher, a Cornell sociologist, those numbers have dropped to just 5.3 percent from 2006-2010. In contrast, the government’s National Survey of Family Growth indicated that, during that same time period, 18.1 percent of single women who became pregnant moved in with their boyfriends (cohabitation).

Out-of-wedlock children are also becoming more common. According to demographers, about v60 percent of all births during the 2000s were to married mothers. Unwed mothers – 24 percent co-habiting and 16 percent non-cohabiting – made up about 41 percent of all births during that same time period. Researchers say this is also the first time that cohabiting births have exceeded births from single mothers who weren’t living with the father of their child.

“The emergence of cohabitation as an acceptable context for childbearing has changed the family-formation landscape,” Christina Gibson-Davis, a sociology professor at Duke University told the Vancouver Sun. “Individuals still value the idea of a two-parent family, but no longer consider it necessary for the parents to be married.”

The trend is growing the fastest among high school graduates with children, Sheela Kennedy, a researcher at the University of Minnesota, told the Vancouver Sun. Among this group, cohabitation has grown from 23 percent in 1997-2001 to 32 percent in 2002-2009. But even among mothers with some college attendance, cohabitation is rising, going from 15 percent to 23 percent over the same period. Those with a college degree are the least likely to opt for cohabitation, she says. However, they have seen a slight increase during that time period as well, going from 3 percent to 5 percent.

This may explain why some are now calling cohabitation the “poor person’s marriage.” Those that refer to it in this manner say that economics play a big role in the rise of cohabitation parenting. Couples that lack a bachelor’s degree are postponing marriage until their finances are more stable, but globalization, automation, and outsourcing are making middle-income jobs harder to come by.

“Because marriages are becoming more polarized by economic status, I don’t see the trend of shotgun cohabitations (cohabitations where couples move in together after conception but before birth) reversing anytime soon,” Casey Copen, a demographer at the government’s National Center for Health Statistics.

“The latest results seem to indicate that marriage, as a context for childbearing and childrearing, is increasingly reserved for America’s middle- and upper-class populations,” Lichter said.

Amanda Leigh Pulte, a 22-year-old mother from Austin, Texas, is one of many mothers who opted for cohabitation over marriage. She and her partner, Gage, a 29-yearold shipping manager, had been dating for three years before their daughter Zoey, now 11-months-old, was conceived. They’d been waiting to move in together until Amanda could earn her bachelor’s in film and start a full-time job. But when they found out she was pregnant, they quickly decided to go ahead and move in together so they could work on save on rent while raising their daughter, who has special medical needs, together. Neither says they see marriage as an option anytime soon, partly because of the additional stress of planning and paying for a wedding.

“I want to marry when I’m ready, not because I’m being forced into it. Whenever I see couples that do, things don’t work out,” Amanda told the Vancouver Sun. “For a while, my father was kind of shocked about the whole thing, but ultimately he was excited to be a grandfather.”

But some researchers and demographers are concerned about the changing trend. For example, Lichter, a past president of the Population Association of America, says that more needs to be done to reflect the increasing cohabitation statistics. The status is not reflected on birth certificates, and this could skew policy debates over the government safety net for poor households.

Lichter, along with researchers at Harvard and Cornell universities, are also concerned that this will mean a generation of children growing up in fragile households where the parents may separate. Studies indicated that only about half of all cohabiting mothers were with the biological father of their child five years after birth. This could result in children that are more likely to be neglected, Lichter said.

Of course, it could end up being that these numbers improve with time. More cohabitation will mean more demographics to consider, and it may be that the smaller percentages were reflecting the “fragileness” of cohabiting families. Only time will tell for sure.

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About the author


Kate Givans is a wife and a mother of five—four sons (one with autism) and a daughter. She’s an advocate for breastfeeding, women’s rights, against domestic violence, and equality for all. When not writing—be it creating her next romance novel or here on Growing Your Baby—Kate can be found discussing humanitarian issues, animal rights, eco-awareness, food, parenting, and her favorite books and shows on Twitter or Facebook. Laundry is the bane of her existence, but armed with a cup of coffee, she sometimes she gets it done.

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